January 12, 2013

"Reddit, Creative Commons and Demand Progress co-founder Aaron Swartz committed suicide in New York City on Friday, Jan. 11."

"He was 26 years old."
Aaron Swartz was facing a potential sentence of dozens of years in prison for allegedly trying to make MIT academic journal articles public.... In September 2012, Aaron Swartz was charged with thirteen counts of felony hacking. In July 2011 Swartz was arrested for allegedly scraping 4 million MIT papers from the JSTOR online journal archive....

Swartz's subsequent struggle for money to offset legal fees to fight the Department of Justice and stay afloat was no secret....
Demand Progress — itself an organization focused on online campaigns dedicated to fighting for civil liberties, civil rights, and progressive government reform - compared The Justice Department's indictment of Swartz to "trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library."

Swartz's suicide came two days after JSTOR announced it is releasing "more than 4.5 million articles" to the public.
ADDED: Here's a podcast from a year ago in which Swartz discusses his activism stopping SOPA (the The Stop Online Piracy Act). The part with Swartz begins at 17:20.

AND: Here's Swartz's Wikipedia page. Picture:



ALSO: Cory Doctorow:
I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15.... Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life... His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access....

Somewhere in there, Aaron's recklessness put him right in harm's way. Aaron snuck into MIT and planted a laptop in a utility closet, used it to download a lot of journal articles (many in the public domain), and then snuck in and retrieved it. This sort of thing is pretty par for the course around MIT, and though Aaron wasn't an MIT student, he was a fixture in the Cambridge hacker scene, and associated with Harvard, and generally part of that gang, and Aaron hadn't done anything with the articles (yet), so it seemed likely that it would just fizzle out.

Instead, they threw the book at him. Even though MIT and JSTOR (the journal publisher) backed down, the prosecution kept on. I heard lots of theories: the feds who'd tried unsuccessfully to nail him for the PACER/RECAP stunt had a serious hate-on for him; the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them, and other, less credible theories. A couple of lawyers close to the case told me that they thought Aaron would go to jail.

This morning, a lot of people are speculating that Aaron killed himself because he was worried about doing time.... But Aaron was also a person who'd had problems with depression for many years. He'd written about the subject publicly, and talked about it with his friends.
AND: I started a new post for the Lessig commentary.

53 comments:

David Smith said...

Aaron was also known to have considered himself "depressed" for many years - we'll probably never know whether he's another victim of prescription antidepressants.

Mitchell the Bat said...

So why is his method of suicide being kept secret?

C R Krieger said...

Is part of this picture the need to reform our Copyright laws to allow information to be freer?   So we can make progress faster?  Protecting Copyright seems to have become a sort rogue belief system.  Yes, profits to the "artist", but not down to the seventh generation, which is where we seem to be heading.

Regards  —  Cliff

edutcher said...

Like David Gregory, the Lefties think he should have been above the law.

Apparently, he understood that there's no such thing as a poor white Liberal and he stole from a very Liberal institution.

Ann Althouse said...

"Is part of this picture the need to reform our Copyright laws to allow information to be freer?"

I wish he could have stayed alive to fight the charges against him. Why kill yourself before the fight? I find it hard to believe he killed himself because of the charges, since he didn't wait until he was convicted, but I'm sure there's complexity to the motivation and the criminal charges were stressful.

creeley23 said...

I wouldn't say it justifies Swartz's actions, but the academic paywalls bother me considering how many of the studies are funded by the federal government, i.e. by taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps someone in academia can explain better how that works.

As to Swartz, what a waste.

Bruce Hayden said...

Demand Progress — itself an organization focused on online campaigns dedicated to fighting for civil liberties, civil rights, and progressive government reform.

Always seemed a bit conflicted - progressive government reform is about as anti-civil liberties as you can get. Progressive government is about as communitarian as you can get, while civil liberties are an individualistic concept. Civil rights can swing either way, depending on whether they are viewed more as group power related or individual power related.

mccullough said...

If the Relublicans weren't so stupid, they'd lead the charge on major copyright reform. It's a good idea and good politics. Start standing up for consumers against the entertainment industry and academia.

Ann Althouse said...

It looks like he was charged with hacking, even though he had legit access, but he went in with a plan to do more than the access said you were supposed to do (which is to distribute the articles to other people).

Assuming the law is important -- as was said about the law David Gregory violated -- why was it in the public interest to go against Swartz and try to get this creative, well-meaning, energetic young man put in prison for 35 years?

Crimso said...

"why was it in the public interest to go against Swartz and try to get this creative, well-meaning, energetic young man put in prison for 35 years?"

[Insert now well-worn Heinlein "bad luck" quote]

O Ritmo Segundo said...

Agree with Althouse's 11:24 comment.

And even if convicted, face the charges. These kinds of fights aren't something one can half-ass.

But I share in the skepticism that it was this event alone that did him in. I would always suspect that some other underlying psychological difficulty was at work in a suicide.

McTriumph said...

This MIT case isn't his first run in with the law concerning hacking a library. I imagine in the past no charges were filed because of connections. Connections sometimes get trumped, he shouldn't have fucked with MIT.

He knew what everyone knows once the unconnected citizen gets the DOJ on your ass it's over.

Regardless, it's tragic when someone 26 commits suicide, especially when 10 years in a low security prison would have been a cake walk and he could have been a hero of the left.

Jim said...

He faced years in prison for some intellectual property theft yet David Gregory walks the streets a free man.

McTriumph said...

Evidently he had some mental and personality disorders from what I've read.

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't think problems with his activism motivated his killing himself.

As for the activism, good for these groups. It's absurd the hoops you have to go through to read research. Right now, if I want to read a study, I have to email friends in academia and ask them to send me PDFs. I see this as a considerable imposition, so I hardly ever do it. My "would like to read someday" list grows longer and longer.

pm317 said...

He was no David Gregory to DoJ, unfortunately!

garage mahal said...

I believe I mentioned Aaron's name not too long ago on this blog, as an example of the ridiculous shit the Obama's administration chooses to chase. What a waste.

Chip S. said...

academic paywalls bother me considering how many of the studies are funded by the federal government, i.e. by taxpayer dollars

Grants pay for the resources used to do the studies. Journal access fees cover the cost of reviewing and editing the studies.

Obviously, each journal has monopoly power over the particular articles it publishes, but there are lots of journals. I don't know if journals compete against each other in terms of the access fees charged, or it they're set collusively.

O Ritmo Segundo said...

Copyright law in general is the focus of major overhaul efforts, even if they're in their infancy. Same with patent law. The economic fall-out of how these privileges are being gratuitously pursued is something that gets more and more attention these days. Lessig is probably a good academic source of that side of the argument. Fights between companies when it comes to patent protection are reaching epic proportions.

Methadras said...

Leftards are cowards.

pm317 said...

Reading the wiki, MIT was thinking about making those articles public but they didn't want to send the wrong message by releasing it soon after Schwartz's actions. Maybe now they are happy.

David said...

I blame academia.

In doing my research of slavery, I have learned that most academic journals are unavailable on the internet to the average Joes without payment of a considerable fee per article. The fees are so high that they clearly are not revenue generators. They are a conscious barrier created by the priestly elite to keep the common person out. This is generally true no matter how old or obscure the publication.

Mr. Swartz had a cause that meant something. But the elites will protect their castles, and the government will help. It is a sad story. Sadder still that the United States government brought this prosecution which undoubtedly contributed in some measure to the man's death.

Beldar said...

Our host asked in comments above, "Assuming the law is important -- as was said about the law David Gregory violated — why was it in the public interest to go against Swartz and try to get this creative, well-meaning, energetic young man put in prison for 35 years?"

But the presumtion that the MAXIMUM potential punishment sought is also the ONLY possible punishment that might have resulted makes this a loaded question.

If the laws he's accused of violating have social value, it's to protect intellectual property.

On other occasions Swartz tried to change those laws more directly, but on this occasion he was accused (apparently with good reason) of having engaged in a massive and deliberate violation of them, indeed the most shocking sort of violation of the law that he could contrive — for, he claimed (in his best Robin Hood voice), the most altruistic of purposes.

What Professor Althouse sees exclusively as a "creative, well-meaning, energetic young man" was indeed probably that, but he may also have been a deliberately notorious thief of intellectual property. Certainly if one only focuses on the "words trying to be free," one comes up with a different evaluation than if one also weighs, for example, the financial damage to the net worths of both the academics and their institutions whom the current law deems worthy of protection.

There's no doubt that the late Mr. Swartz' suicide is sad. But when I'm picking my heroes, even when I'm looking among those whose heroism is supposedly demonstrated by their noble civil disobedience, I expect to see in them a frank acknowledgment and acceptance of the costs and consequences of that disobedience.

furious_a said...

why was it in the public interest to go against Swartz and try to get this creative, well-meaning, energetic young man put in prison for 35 years?

Because he was stepping on someone's air hose.

David said...

From Doctorow's article:

Instead, they threw the book at him. Even though MIT and JSTOR (the journal publisher) backed down, the prosecution kept on. I heard lots of theories: the feds who'd tried unsuccessfully to nail him for the PACER/RECAP stunt had a serious hate-on for him; the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them, and other, less credible theories. A couple of lawyers close to the case told me that they thought Aaron would go to jail.

Wake up, lefties. The government is not the friend of the people.

Chip S. said...

The fees are so high that they clearly are not revenue generators.

And the incentives for publishers to do this are...what?

Publishers charge universities large sums for site-license access to their online journals. It's a form of "commodity bundling" that maximizes their revenue. If they charged individuals the revenue-maximizing fee per article, they couldn't charge a bulk fee to universities.

Beldar said...

Should a deliberately notorious thief of intellectual property be immune from prosecution — indeed, immune from ANY negative consequences and applauded by many for his theft — merely because he's also a "creative, well-meaning, energetic young man"?

Or are those, rather, appropriate considerations for sentencing?

I think the latter. FWIW, I thought the same of David Gregory, who I think ought indeed be prosecuted but who, if convicted, I think should have his sentence suspended.

EDH said...

His t-shirt in the photo appears to have the cartoon image of a jet turbine engine with wings and a tail.

As if to propel an airship unable to carry passengers or payload, but only to move itself for the sake of moving itself with no other utilitarian purpose.

McTriumph said...

Patent litigation heroes.

In 1927, Koch developed a more efficient thermal cracking process for turning crude oil into gasoline. This process led to bigger yields and helped smaller, independent oil companies compete. The larger oil companies instantly sued and filed 44 different lawsuits against Koch. Koch won all but one of the lawsuits. (That verdict was later overturned when it was revealed that the judge had been bribed.)[11]

Nevertheless, this litigation effectively put Winkler-Koch out of business in the U.S. for several years. Koch turned his focus to foreign markets, including the Soviet Union, where Winkler-Koch built 15 cracking units between 1929 and 1932. The company also built installations in countries throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia.[1] In the early 1930s, Winkler-Koch hosted Soviet technicians for training.[12] The contract that Winkler-Koch signed with the Soviet government paid the company $5 million.[13][unreliable source?]

Beldar said...

I should note that I'm a fan of Mr. Doctorow's fiction and his website, but he sometimes has some strange ideas about the law and the legal system, and I frequently find him to be an unreliable reporter on such matters (perhaps because I'm a lawyer and he's a science fiction writer). Specifically regarding PACER, which I've used frequently, often daily, for well over a decade:

I don't know what role if any Mr. Swartz has played in any of the changes in PACER fees or policies over the years.

But PACER is still not entirely free by any means. Even with free one-time on-line access to the litigants themselves for the records in any given case, as a general rule, nonparties and the public generally have to pay modest search and access fees. Indeed, I end up paying modest additional amounts even for the cases in which I'm counsel of record and have gotten a "free" look at, usually because something I didn't think I'd need to save to my own computer after viewing it, I ended up having to go back and retrieve later (for which I then have to pay the same fees as would anyone unconnected to the case). The justification for these fees is that they shift the operating costs of the system from the taxpaying public at large to those who have the keenest interest in the federal courts.

That's not a bad idea in principle, and to my knowledge it works plenty well in practice. I'm much more offended, for example, by the NYT's paywall than by PACER's very minimal remaining fees and charges.

Mary Beth said...

.

Beldar said...

An example of Mr. Doctorow's tendency toward unreliability on matters legal is his very silly assertion that Mr. Swartz "singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law." Every part of that assertion is subject to serious challenge, and it's as ridiculously hyperbolic as it is inspecific. One could equally well hand out subway tokens and claim to have "liberated" an equivalent number of captive New Yorkers.

jr565 said...

Evidently he had some mental and personality disorders from what I've read.

Someone should post his medical records so that we can what he actually suffered from.

garage mahal said...

Obvious irony here is the government hacks and steals data on a daily fucking basis. The Obama administration's obsession with secrecy might be his real legacy. It's one thing to protect your ass, but an entirely different thing when you go after people to protect your ass.

ambienisevil said...

I'm so sick of everyone good dying.

Rabel said...

If a person not affiliated with MIT, well-meaning or otherwise, sneaks into a server closet on MIT property and hardwires a laptop and external hard drive to MIT's computer system in order to steal data, he has gone a step or two beyond legit access.

lemondog said...

Tragic

Alex said...

Wow, one thing that everyone including Ritmo & Garage are on the same side of!

Alex said...

Rabel - these new breed of young hackers think they are above it all.

chickelit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chickelit said...

Angered that the information was so unavailable, Swartz appears to have thought that the information should be free. That was his mistake -- to assume that a sustainable price point was absolutely free of cost. Even anyone who argues that "the Government" paid for it and thus it should be free needs to ask whether other Governments and other peoples are entitled to the same and if so, why?

Carl said...

academic paywalls bother me considering how many of the studies are funded by the federal government, i.e. by taxpayer dollars

This is silly. Any citizen certainly does have free access to anything published in an academic journal. All you need to do is get your lazy ass down to the local library, pull out the journal, and sit down and read. Never heard yet of a library that charged you for walking in the front door, or sitting down and reading an article, and taking as many notes as you like.

What isn't free is your convenient access: being able to photocopy the journal for free in the library, for example. Somebody's got to maintain that photocopier, supply paper, toner, electricity, space, et cetera. His labor isn't free, and it wasn't rolled into the cost of the grant. You want a hard copy for your convenience -- nothing wrong with you paying for that. TANSTAAFL.

The same is true of online access. Online access is a convenience. And it costs somebody real money to provide it: to maybe digitize the articles (although that is far less relevant these days, when almost all articles start off digital anyway), but beyond that to buy the server, maintain it, pay for space, electricity, air conditioning, upkeep, upgrade, bandwidth. All that crap costs real money -- pays the salaries of real people, who need that money to pay the rent and electricity bill -- and it wasn't rolled into the original research grant, for the obvious reason that the taxpayers think making research available to other researchers only is pretty sufficient to accomplish the public purpose of research.

So it's entirely reasonable that if you want extremely convenient access to that research, that you pay the cost. (Almost all academic journals will supply articles online if you pay them. They usually offer individual subscription prices which are steep, but orders of magnitude less than institutional access; they will also usually allow you to purchase one article at a time a la carte.)

Certainly more reasonable than insisting that the poor slobs who maintain the servers get ripped off and not paid for their work, or that the taxpayers foot the bill by rolling the price of convenience into the grant. Most people in my experience who bitch about this are former students, who are shocked, once they exit the womb of the university, that so very much they used to carelessly take for free -- computing resources, the latest software, library access, health care -- turns out to cost real money in the real world.

Information doesn't want to be free. This is one of the most damaging and antisocial of the shibboleths of the OSS/hacker movement. Information represents the hours of somebody's life, the time it took somebody to collect, verify, and find a good way to publish that information. When you insist that it be yours in exchange for zero labor of your own, you're just a thief. You want someone else to work for you for free.

I'm sorry the kid killed himself. I'm sorrier still that senior people, to whom he may have looked up, like that ratfink Doctorow -- who you can be damn sure insists on being paid for his work -- misled him into pursuing a quixotic and ultimately immoral quest, which, what a surprise, eventually brought down on his head the wrath of authority, that no doubt contributed to his feelings of alienation.

chickelit said...

what carl said

Amartel said...

This poor kid wasn't far enough up the lefty ladder to qualify for an exemption. They kept telling him it was good to be a rebel, a revolutionary, civilly disobedient, to free information, to spit in the face of the uptight squares and their jive rules. Then they prosecuted and harassed him to debt and then death. That must have come as a real shock. If they'd let him off the hook he'd be a hero, famous and making a lot of money going around selling his story of high stakes tech freedom fighting shenanigans.
Instead, he's dead.

n said...

in pace requiscat

Derek Brown said...

This seems like a pretty good demonstration of Steve Sailer's maxim that modern day libertarianism, especially in its hacker variety, boils down to free access to multimedia entertainment.

Palladian said...

Well whoever Steve Sailer is, he's an asshole.

Crimso said...

"Any citizen certainly does have free access to anything published in an academic journal. All you need to do is get your lazy ass down to the local library, pull out the journal, and sit down and read."

Does your local library subscribe to Cancer Research? My university library does not, and yet there are many articles in it that I need. I can use interlibrary loan, but somebody pays for that. Although I'll admit that what you might have meant was the journals are "freely accessible" (which does not mean free access; they're freely accessible if you pay for access).

Most biomedical journals, BTW, have a stipulation that any unique reagents used in the experiments reported in the paper must be made freely available upon request by other researchers. Most people are quite generous and will send you antibodies, purified enzymes, synthesized compounds, etc. One of the major researchers in my specific area routinely asks for money when people ask him for samples of unique reagents he has used. When someone once confronted him about it he replied "Freely accessible does not necessarily mean accessible for free."

Bob Ellison said...

Suicide is a sin. Who does it is a jerk.

Derek Brown said...

The old queen protests too much:

Gary said...

Seeking decades of imprisonment for a case the "victims" didn't want to prosecute is insane and vindictive. The judge warning him against seeking publicity and fund-raising for his defense was insane and vindictive. Characterizing him as just another libertarian/liberal hacker who wanted free mass media entertainment when he was seeking to share to the public academic papers stuck behind high payment for access walls is clearly ignorance.

Freeman Hunt said...

You can't walk into your local library and read those articles. What library has them?

If you want to read one study, a study that may or may not be helpful to you as you can't browse it beforehand, they want $35. Give me a break. That's there to keep you from getting it, not to make sure you're paying for content. And there you are, having largely funded much of this research. The paywall is so high that you effectively cannot do research outside of an institution. That should be reformed.

In any case, while I'm in favor of activism to reform this system, I am not in favor of stealing.

Fly said...

You are one of the best authors of legal articles I read during last year. Would you please write something to the section of legal articles on Attorney Online. There is also an Attorney Directory where lawyers can submit for free their contacts. I hope to gather there all best US lawyers.